Truth, Beauty, and Social Media

How social media can be a place to hide, or a place to share

Posted Sep 25, 2015

Earlier this year, I wrote about Madison Holleran, a student athlete at the University of Pennsylvania who died by suicide the winter of her freshman year.

Holleran’s story was high-profile from the beginning, as is often the case for the suicide deaths of beautiful and successful people. But, it gained further attention when ESPN writer Kate Fagan profiled Holleran and interviewed several of her friends, all who shared that they, as Holleran did, put a lot of effort into masking the realities of their lives via their social media profiles.

“Fakebooking” or “filtering” (in Instagram parlance) is nothing new. And, as the fable below illustrates, even without technology, we work very hard to hide what’s really going on in our lives:

There once was a King who had no children. One day he decided it was time to think about who would become heir to his throne. The heir to his throne, he decreed, would be selected amongst the children in the land, through a contest. The children were very excited, crowding around the king’s palace, eagerly anticipating the contest instructions.

As the children gathered around, the king handed each child a seed.

“Take this seed. Bring it home. Plant it, care for it, nurture it. And one year from today, bring back what you have grown. Based on what you have produced, I will select an heir to my throne.”

The children returned home, excited and ready to get to work. They each got a pot and decorated it to make it beautiful. They filled each pot with soil, placed the seed in it, and nurtured it.

One little girl, Allison, cared for her plant every single day. She woke up early and watered it, talked to it, even sang to it. Yet, as the days and weeks went on, Allison was sad. Her plant didn’t grow.

She watched as all of the children in her neighborhood had seeds that sprouted, grew, and flourished. Flowers bursting open, plants growing two, three, even four feet high. But Allison’s seed didn’t sprout. And yet, she didn’t stop caring for that plant.

After the year finally passed, all the children brought their plants before the king. They were some of the most beautiful plants people in the land had ever seen. The children were clearly proud of what they had grown.

Allison, however, stood there with tears in her eyes, holding a pot, beautifully decorated, well watered, with rich soil…but no plant.

The king walked slowly past each child and his or her plant. While the children beamed with pride, he, himself did not look happy.

Then he spotted Allison.

“What is your name?”

“Allison,” she whispered.

“And, Allison, where is your plant?”

“I...I don’t have one.”

“Why not?”

“I tried, your Majesty, I really did. I watered it every day. I talked to it. I even sang to the seed. I cared for it every morning before school and every afternoon when I came home, and every night before I went to bed. But nothing grew.”

The other children stood uncomfortably whispering to one another as Allison cried.

The King smiled at Allison, patted her on the head, and proclaimed, “Allison, you will be the next queen!”

“What?!” exclaimed all the children in unison.

“But she didn’t even grow anything!” shouted one boy.

“All of us have these beautiful plants! But she has nothing! How can she be the next queen?!”

The king replied, “That is true. All of you brought me beautiful plants. And they are indeed some of the most beautiful plants that I have ever seen. But, one year ago I gave each of you a seed to plant, nurture, and care for. What you didn’t know was that I boiled those seeds. They were never going to grow. When your seeds didn’t grow, most of you replaced it with another. But Allison did not. She cared for that seed every day even though nothing grew. She didn’t replace it with another. She tried her hardest, even when faced with a challenge. She was honest and true. And these are the qualities we need for the next ruler of our land.”

I read this beautiful fable here, through a link posted (on Facebook, of course) by a friend. The lesson, says the rabbi who uses this fable as a starting point for a longer piece, is not that honesty is the best policy, or that you should always try your hardest, even if it isn’t clear that there’s a reward for your efforts.

The lesson isn’t something Allison teaches us through her actions. It’s a lesson taught through the actions of the other children.

The other children Instagrammed their seeds. They applied one filter after another, until they got the image they liked best. They Fakebooked about the growth of their seeds. And they never told anyone what was really happening. They likely never would have, if it wasn’t for Allison and her quite unintentional exposure of their facade.

We have so much more to gain from sharing our struggles with our own boiled seeds—knowing that we have all been given them—than we do from trying to hide that we have boiled seeds in the first place.

But, our incentive to hide is so much greater than any to share. It feels so risky to be honest; to connect seems like such a faraway prospect, and not worth making ourselves vulnerable.

Where in American culture are we ever told that it is better to be true than to be beautiful?

It takes tremendous courage to intentionally live in truth. But, living in truth seems to be the path to healing from and preventing the worsening of pain.

Even I personally struggle with what I share and what I keep to myself, I am reminded about why we should share.

Four years ago, a friend lost her sister to suicide. From day one, my friend has been entirely honest about her emotions in relation to her sister’s death. On Facebook. Entirely honest.

How do I know she’s telling the truth? Her posts make me uncomfortable. Sometimes I physically squirm. Sometimes I hold back tears. Sometimes I don’t want to push “Like.”

Especially when I don’t want to push “Like,” I write a note to this friend. I reach out to tell her I’m thinking of her, that I’m there for her, as I was in those first moments of loss. I’m still there for her, as things get more complicated, uglier, harder. Just as I hold my own boiled seeds—my own losses, my own unanswered questions, my own doubts—I hold hers.

So as there is a lot that we mask through social media, there is also a lot that we share. My friend and I communicate exclusively through Facebook messaging—we’re thousands of miles away from each other, both mothers of young children, with little time for anything other than messages typed when we have a few minutes. But, those messages can be lifelines.

For me, they’re a reminder of the power of social media for good, for connection, and for creating a new kind of truth. Social media have opened up entirely new ways of being ourselves. When we are the curators of our own truth, let’s make it really real.

Copyright Elana Premack Sandler 2015, All Rights Reserved